Sunday, February 14, 2010
Now Comes the Best Part...
Fast forward twenty-one years. Yesterday, completely unexpectedly, I was blessed with what I can only describe as a transformational experience in the confessional. It’s one of those experiences—I describe them as spiritual “milestones”—that we have once every few years at best, and many times when we least expect it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never held confession in a bad light, at least since I’ve come to fully understand what the Sacrament is and does. That said, it is often a (necessarily) painful experience to own up to and voice one’s own shortcomings in the struggle to live a faithful Catholic Christian life, sort of like ripping the bandage off of a self-inflicted wound so that the surgeon can get to work mending it. I usually want it to be as quick as possible and get on my way. That was the way I walked into the confessional yesterday, expecting it to be an unspectacular celebration of the Sacrament for the first time at our new parish.
Let me back up a bit. I suppose—no, I know—that each confession is transformational in a way, in that the confessor brings the full power of Christ to not only wash us clean, but with His authority to absolve the sins as though they had never been committed. Think about it for a minute. That’s a mind-boggling gift, to be able to remove all the baggage, big and small, that we accumulate during the many times daily that we stumble and fall. Thank you, Jesus! But, frankly, despite the power and authority under which the priest is ordained and operates--outside any human capacity--he is still a human being. He may be tired, ill, or have other things on his mind distracting him just like the rest of us. And so many experiences in the confessional, though spiritually powerful, are mentally and emotionally lackluster. Every once in a while though, Christ breaks through the hum-drum to reawaken us to the reality of his grace that is conveyed. That happened, for the first time in a long time, yesterday.
As my wife and I sat waiting, I found it incredibly difficult to focus. The pressures of the work week passed and upcoming, and the list of things I needed to do at home, kept crowding in and made it difficult to focus even enough for a quick examination of conscience. As she walked out, she tapped me on the shoulder and mouthed, “That was awesome!” “Hmmm…” I thought. “She’s never said that walking out of confession before.” So I walked in and sat down across from the priest, with only a couple of rather mundane things to confess. Sins, yes, but nothing earth-shattering (or salvation-shattering I guess). It was going to be a quick in-and-out, no problem. Oh boy, was I wrong.
“Hi, I’m father Bill (not his real name). Thanks for coming in. Where are you from?”
“I’m from Maryland originally, but…” we went on to exchange pleasantries for a bit. And then something completely out of the blue happened. He prayed over me. It was not in the sense of offering a blessing (at least not yet); he prayed simply that my heart would be opened to make a good confession and his ears would be opened to hear the words and his hands blessed absolve them. “I’m not here as a shrink or a guru,” he offered, “just as a fellow sinner here to maybe help you out a bit.” Intrinsically, I guess I knew that was true, but I was still caught off guard and stuck back at the “Let’s pray together.” Something strange was happening. This was not going to be an “ordinary” confessional experience.
I went on to confess the few things I’d thought about, and even asked for some advice on how to prevent falling into the same repeated traps in the future. He responded with wisdom, patience, and—most importantly—forgiveness and love. It was almost as if I could hear the words of Christ being emanating from his person and mannerisms as much as his words: “Your sins are forgiven you.” But if I had been off guard already—and I was—I was knocked on my heels by a burst of joy at his next words.
“And now comes the best part.”
Wow! WOW! Hold on a minute, hit the pause button. What did he just say? “The best part?” Those words hung in my mind as he offered the prayer of absolution, and they quickly sank with the grace conferred to the rock bottom of my soul. “This is the best part,” I thought. For the first time in a few years, I didn’t just know that he was speaking the words “I absolve you from your sins...” in the authority of Christ, I felt it. It was as if Christ himself were speaking the words of absolution. Tears of joy began to well up, and so as not to be completely embarrassed, I thanked “Fr Bill” and made my way out of the confessional to pray and thank God for the gift of experiencing what it is to be close to him.
Because of the gift of having found a good confessor, I eagerly look forward to returning to confession, and regardless of the individual experiences in the future, the objective truth is now and forever will be all the more real.